Memoir or Fiction: Exploring Voice and Vision in Different Genres by Eden Elieff

Let’s say you have a story that only you can tell—you’ve witnessed or experienced events and circumstances no one else has. Or maybe, you have a perspective and passion that give you a singular understanding of those events.

And yet, these unique stories that shape our lives are often the most challenging to write about. Their enormity and multifaceted nature can overwhelm us. It’s like trying to find entry into a castle that has no visible doors. 

I speak from experience.

When my family moved to Chicago’s northern suburbs from the city’s south side in 1970, we lived across the street from a family whose primary vehicle was a hearse. They always parked it in their driveway, in plain sight, never in the garage.

This was weird. And unusual. To say the least.

And at the age of fourteen, the least was all I could say. I was too young to make sense of it. Yet as I saw the hearse every day, familiarity diminished its shock value. The vehicle, along with Lake Michigan, the buzzcut lawns and old-growth elms, blended into my daily scenery.

Three years later, during which time my mother evicted my father and initiated divorce proceedings, an anti-Semitic neighbor vandalized our home on the Jewish New Year, our car was stolen, I was beset with social anxiety—for starters—I went off to college and forgot about the hearse. Good riddance. To everything.

For years, it never even occurred to me to write about our move. Its transformative impact was too immense, too bright to look at. Yet one day, some fifteen years later, the image of the hearse came to me, seemingly out of the blue.

With the distance years bring, I could instantly see that the metaphor gods had just served me up a big fat one, and damn if I was going to let it go by without taking a swing at it—speaking of metaphors. This sudden insight told me: the hearse was my vehicle now, my way into this foundational story that had always been just a swirling succession of traumatic events, one without form or clear meaning. Yet once I grasped that the hearse was actually the key feature of the scenery, that it had symbolic resonance as both an omen and expression of our family’s demise, I could connect and interpret the various events of my experience and thus tell a coherent story. The essay I could finally write, “White Flight,” became my first published piece.

So, let’s say you discover an iconic image that’s always been woven into the fabric of your life, hiding in plain sight, and you feel a sudden urgency to write the story it embodies. And yet…you stop. You’re not sure which genre or form might best manifest its power.

My class Exploring Voice and Vision in Different Genres will consider both fiction and memoir as potential platforms from which to tell your story. Which genre might offer the perspectives, techniques and formal possibilities to best realize your intentions? We’ll read both essays and stories and look at the recent phenomenon of autofiction, a hybrid genre which blends both autobiography and fiction. We’ll consider the boundaries and qualities that define each domain and develop a sense of how and when the line separating them might be blurred—and when such blurring undermines the integrity of each.

Ultimately, we’ll aim to discover where you might find your most authentic, expansive, and persuasive voice on the page. Philip Roth described his work as a fiction writer as that of “undermining experience, embellishing experience, rearranging and enlarging experience into a species of mythology.” Maybe your story will bloom with such imaginative freedom, or maybe memoir, as a direct account of your experience, will “unlock meanings that fictionalizing has obscured...and can drive home some sharp emotional nails,” as Roth said about his transition to his autobiography, The Facts.

You’ll have two opportunities to present your work during the eight weeks of the class. Come join us. Just click on the button below to learn more!